Sean Z. Paxton is the Homebrew Chef, a professional chef and home brewer who hosts a monthly show called "The Home Brewed Chef" on The Brewing Network. He also maintains a website (homebrewchef.com) devoted to beer cuisine, cooking with beer, pairing beers with food and sharing techniques for how to do it all at home.
"Beer is such a rich subject right now. There are so many different styles," he said. "A lot of people don't understand that it's not our father's or grandfather's drink anymore."
It's much more complicated.
"For people who like wine, they can understand the flavor descriptors that are taught to them," he added, "things like black cherries, blackberries and peppercorn. But beer is so much more intimidating."
He says that's because there are 95 different beer styles, and craft brewers are constantly experimenting with new flavor combinations and ingredients, like cocoa nibs, cinnamon, fig, oak chips and brown sugar.
Then there are all the variations in the taste of hops, malt, yeast and water, depending on where they're from.
That's what makes beer such a fun and exploratory category at the moment, Paxton said, if only people could begin looking at it a little more like wine, setting up side-by-side tastings of similar styles made by different producers and really taking the time to taste each one.
"Each beer is very different. How they use the yeast is very different, how they treat it, how they pitch it, what temperature they ferment at — all can change the flavor profile," Paxton said. "Two IPAs are never going to taste the same, and one person's version of a stout is going to be different from another's."
Still, he does have some ground rules to offer. While most wine pairings are contrasting — pairing a wine to contrast a dish's flavors — he finds that it's better to pair beer and food that complement in flavors rather than contrast.
So for example, a smoked porter with a lot of chocolate and roasted coffee tones goes great with barbecue; a rich, decadent stout is fantastic with chocolate cake, either as a beverage or as an ingredient used in place of water when making the cake.
At the 21st Amendment Restaurant and Brewery in San Francisco, Paxton worked with the brewers to make a beer called Monk's Blood, a Belgian dark ale in which were added dark Belgian Candi Sugar (a sugar refined from sugar beets), cinnamon, vanilla bean and dried Black Mission figs, all aged on oak. He thinks it's perfect with duck.
On the other hand, Saison, a spicy, dry and very quaffable style of beer very much in demand right now, works with seafood, chicken and cheese.
"My goal is to bring a fine-dining element to beer," he added. "I want people to look at the beer and to taste the beer, to slow down and appreciate it."
Where to slow down and appreciate beer and food together:
Bear Republic Brewing
Racer 5 IPA is among the most recognized of Bear Republic's beers, but it makes a slew of others to enjoy on its sunny downtown Healdsburg patio. Right now, Wine Country Wheat and Maibock are on tap, perfect fits for warmer weather. The Wine Country Wheat is a Bavarian Hefeweizen brewed in a traditional German style, a light and refreshing ale. Brewed with wheat, malted barley, Munich malt and a specially selected Weihenstephan yeast from one of the world's oldest breweries in Germany, the beer is unfiltered and full of flavor. It pairs with the brewpub's Hummm Baby Crab Sandwich and Santa Fe Chicken Salad.